Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Yet Another Teaching Self-Evaluation

Time again, for a teaching self-evaluation. This semester, I taught three classes, and ran three independent studies. This workload was a mistake. I use the term ‘mistake’ because I signed up for those independent studies; that is, I chose to over commit myself. I had foolishly imagined I would be able to do justice to these multiple commitments; I soon found not I could not keep up. The result was one of the most disorganized semesters I’ve ever suffered–or made others suffer. The time taken up by class meetings–including the discussion sessions with my independent study students–and class preparations, reading weekly written responses, grading, office hours, and so on, quickly swamped many other commitments; and I failed to respond with adequate organization. (Yes, that dreaded ‘time-management.’) My students felt this lack of disorganization; I constantly felt harried, underprepared, late, and negligent. Several students complained to me that I did not respond to their emails in time; in each case, they were correct. I also committed the mistake–out of sheer emotion and physical weariness–of not sticking to my specified restrictions on assignment deadlines; the result was a blizzard of late submissions and resubmissions. Which of course just further increased my sense of disorganization. One manifestation of my harried feeling this semester was that I walked out of a class meeting when it became apparent to me no one had done the reading; I’ve done this three times in my fifteen years at Brooklyn College, and on each occasion, the fury I evinced left me feeling empty and spent. And my students bewildered.

What went well? I enjoyed great classroom interactions–of varying kinds–with two out of my three classes. Two of my three independent studies went well in terms of the quality of the discussions I had with my students. I used new syllabi for all classes; this was required for one class, which was new, while the other received makeovers; and in general, my selections–four ‘religious novels’ for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class; Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche for my Landmarks in Philosophy class; and Marx, Weber, and Durkheim for my Social Philosophy class–went over well with my students. (Some students, quite understandably, found the assigned readings from Weber a little too dry.) Many students impressed me with the quality of their responses to the readings, and by the sophistication and thoughtfulness of their papers. Some told me they enjoyed my teaching; an affirmation that is always gratifying. Some of these responses, to be honest, brought tears to my eyes; they included comments about my ‘passion for teaching’ and how I had ‘taught them a lot.’ I do not think I can adequately convey my emotional state on hearing my students express themselves so openly and emotionally to me in these personal and private encounters. I also think I did a good job in my one-on-one interactions with students when going over their papers with them; almost everyone I worked with told me they found these sessions useful.

So, another semester of learning–in both directions–comes to a close. Teaching remains my greatest philosophical passion; and my partners in this enterprise–my students–continue to enrich my engagement with philosophical thinking. I’m looking forward to the summer’s travel and writing plans, but I’m also looking forward to the teaching in the fall–more new syllabi, more unread books to be worked through. Hopefully, I’ll be a little wiser then too, and will have learned from this semester’s mistakes.

The Indispensable, Visibly Responsive Student

Every semester–with luck, in every class–there is one of them: a student whose physical expressiveness in the classroom acts as the wind beneath your teaching wings. There she (or he) is: eyebrows raised, smiling, astonishment or surprise breaking out on their facial features, experiencing ‘Eureka’ moments one after the other, informing you, with every word of your lecture, every point you make, every example you conjure up out of thin air, that you are on the right track, doing the right thing, bringing enlightenment to the masses, dispelling ignorance and gloom with your teaching. Sometimes, this student will not show, in their written assignments or their attendance record, a kind of uniform diligence in all the evaluative dimensions pertaining to student performance, but no matter; their most significant interaction with you is the most direct one, at the precise moment when teaching and learning seem to be proceeding in perfect unison and synchronicity, proof of which is being delivered to you, in real-time, by the student’s visible responses to your teaching.

I do not think I’m exaggerating the importance of this kind of student in the classroom; over the years, I’ve found that as I scan my students’ expressions in the classroom, I’m invariably drawn back to, and indeed, start to seek out, with varying degrees of awareness of my doing so, those expressions which offer encouragement to my solitary teaching self. I should, of course, already have made the classroom a group experience, but observing such reactions in one of my students helps me reach out further and work to make it so. Just like the bored and disinterested expression (or the endless clock-watching) can act as a disincentive to further teaching, the ‘connected’ expression keeps teaching going; it throws fuel on the flame.

This semester, I have students who encourage me so in all three of my classes; I’ve lucked out. In each class, as I begin teaching, as if on cue, without prior co-ordination or agreement, I seek them out. They respond, as they always do, and I’m off and running. So strong is this interaction that traces of it persist beyond the classroom; sometimes, when preparing for class by working through the week’s assigned reading, I catch myself wondering how that particular student (or students) will respond–given their prior inclinations–to a particular passage or point or argument. Sometimes, I look forward to their reactions with pleasurable anticipation; they have been so gratifying in the past that now, they serve to motivate my preparation for my encounters with them.

Learning is, as we have been reminded again and again through both theory and practice, a co-operative endeavor. My work as teacher is, as I have pointed out here before, incomplete without my students. In this dimension of their relationship with me, supposedly the most superficial by one reckoning, they provide yet more proof of that claim. They show me that I’m welcome in this space; that I would do well to stick around. And learn.

On Congratulating A ‘Dropout’

A few years ago, I went out for dinner and drinks with some friends of mine at a Manhattan restaurant. As we placed our orders, I noticed my waiter looked familiar; he smiled, walked over, and said, “Hey professor, remember me? It’s D_; I took your Modern Philosophy class a couple of years ago.” Indeed, I did; I remembered him quite clearly as a budding comic book artist, someone who was normally quiet and reserved in class, but sometimes spoke up to offer a thoughtful comment or two. His facial expressions were often more eloquent; he frequently seemed to perk up in response to either the passages read out loud in class, or to the commentary I offered. (Truth be told, this form of feedback was highly gratifying; it often helped sustain me during our long class meetings at night.) D_ was also a thoughtful writer, keen to improve his writing, and to this end, often came to meet me in my office hours to discuss his papers. In any case, I asked him what he was up to now, fully expecting to hear a variant of the usual “I’ve got x more classes before I finish,” or “I graduated last year and am now doing y.” D_’s response was “Professor, your class changed my life; after I took it, I dropped out of college!”

My student did not offer me too elaborate an explanation of what influence my class had had on him, and given my social commitments, I could not press much further. He did say that he was now spending more time on what he really wanted to do; from my perspective, he seemed much happier than I had ever seen him before. I can only venture a guess as to what effect the content of our class–one devoted largely to sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysics and epistemology–could have had on my student: I suspect that talking about these sorts of foundational issues might have broadened my student’s perspectives on his own life and his attendant scheme of priorities. Thinking critically in one domain can often prompt critical inquiry in others; perhaps my student had realized that he was in college for the wrong reasons; perhaps he was merely going through the motions, and that his true passions lay elsewhere. Perhaps the concentration on questions in my class that were never asked elsewhere in my student’s life had prompted him to examine further those unexamined verities in his life that were keeping him in college; the result of that inquiry might  have been to prompt him reorder his life’s priorities and make a bold decision to reconfigure how he lived it; perhaps he had realized that he had merely been molding himself into an ‘acceptable’ and ‘respectable’ form for the ‘real world.’ Perhaps philosophy had enabled the examined life and found it wanting in crucial regards. My student had made an existential choice in response.

After D_ made this pronouncement, I slapped him on the back and said, “Well done!” It’s not everyday that I congratulate a ‘drop-out.’ But D_ was sincere; and he had, like many others before him, showed that that term is far more pejorative than it needs to be. Alasdair Macintyre reportedly once said that “The point of a modern university education should be to ensure that it leaves the student entirely unfitted to the modern world.” There is a great deal to disagree with the way the modern world is structured and run; and too much of modern university education merely aids and abets those pathologies. I’m happy to have contributed, if only in the most minor of ways, to weakening one person’s allegiance to a way of life he had not chosen for himself, and had no further interest in pursuing.

Lessons From A Skeptic About Hobbes

During my first semester of teaching philosophy, in my class on Hobbes and social contract theory, I introduced my students to the usual excerpts from Leviathan: the passages in which Hobbes describes the severely attenuated and impoverished life that awaits those who live in a state of nature, how this creates the need for a sovereign maintainer of power, and so on. As I did so, I was brought up short by a line of questioning directed at me by a student.

First, the student asked me if I knew where Hobbes was ‘raised’–where was he born, where did he grow up. I lamely answered ‘England’ even as I knew few to no details beyond that: I did not know the extent of his travels or journeys to lands elsewhere. ‘Hobbes’ was the name I attached to a particular theory; it was the author’s name. That recognized and acknowledged, I moved on to the theory associated with it, figuring out where and how the theoretical particulars I read about were associated with other theories. Those were the objects of my concern, not the author. I decontextualized the theory, not caring where it came from, who presented it, where and when it might have been written; the premises and conclusions of the various theoretical moves I encountered were evaluated and considered but that was about it.

Second, the student asked me how Hobbes had arrived at the view of human nature he had presented in Leviathan: had he observed such behavior in action, had he traveled to lands that were pre-political in the way Hobbes imagined it? Perhaps Hobbes’ view of human nature was a narrow one, based only on the experiences he had observed, and could not be extrapolated to all mankind, and thus could not serve as the basis for a supposedly universal theory of political philosophy? In response, I said that Hobbes’ was not relying on empirical knowledge of a known state of nature as much as he was providing a kind of rational reconstruction of how the existent political state with its contingent features came to be, based on a generalization of various aspects of human nature assumed or presumed to be universal because of their seeming ubiquity in human behavior. But, my student persisted, Hobbes’ theory was supposed to apply to all humans; it was made without reference to time or place; how could it claim such universality? When I made reference again to the extrapolation based on incomplete knowledge, on a certain kind of psychological generalization, my student pressed me on whether such an induction was justified or not. I found myself a little flummoxed by this line of questioning and do not remember if I had an adequate response at the time for my student.

I was aware of the context in which this discussion was taking place. My student was a young black man; he was reading a text which described an achievement of ‘Western philosophy’ and which made reference to a primitive form of man, one whose shortcomings were overcome by a particular philosophical maneuver associated with the ‘West.’ Perhaps the student had himself been assimilated to this ‘primitive man;’ perhaps the student had encountered schools of thought which regarded ‘primitive man’ as morally deficient in the ways in which Hobbes’ theory at first glance understood him. Perhaps my student was resisting Hobbes’ view of man because he regarded the view as not being benign in the way that other students might have.

My education then was incomplete; I was a graduate student still working on my dissertation. I had not thought much about the provenance of the theories I read and discussed; I had not thought of their varying implications for their diverse audiences. My student was not the only learner in that discussion in the classroom.

On Avoiding An Embarrassing Meltdown In The Classroom

A week or so ago, I sensed trouble was afoot, that danger was brewing–pick your favored cliché–in my teaching work. I was growing steadily irritated, being driven to apoplexy by an insidious irritant: a student’s behavior had gotten under my skin. He could do nothing right; I found myself handing out imaginary dressing-downs in class, in my office; I experienced surges of irritation at the mere thought of my last interaction with him. I found myself avoiding eye-contact in the classroom for fear of experiencing a potentially debilitating wave of anger while trying to work through a passage of philosophical argumentation.

I was coming dangerously close to that most embarrassing of occurrences for a teacher: a public eruption of temper at a student.

In the fall of 1997, during my first semester of teaching philosophy–then as a graduate student–I had the misfortune of encountering three extremely loquacious students in my night class. Their ringleader, a loud young woman, conducted their chorus with cheekiness and verve; she cared little for the disturbance caused to the students around them. I sent several warnings and rebukes their way but to no avail; I sensed some defiance in their responses but did not push any further. Finally, one night, matters came to a head; their chattering broke out again as I wrote on the blackboard. My inevitable reprimand was now responded to with an insolent suggestion that I change my tone. To put matters proverbially, I lost my shit. I shouted–loudly–at the offending miscreant that she needed to change her ways; rather gratifyingly, even if only for an instant, she looked shell-shocked. As did the rest of the class. In the awkward silence that followed–that seemed to last forever–I went back to writing on the blackboard, desperately trying to recover my equanimity. After class ended, my student came to me in tears. I had humiliated her, shown her up. We talked for a few minutes; I explained my reaction as best as I could, pointing out to her that her group’s behavior was a distraction and disrespectful. She apologized, and then left.

Later, I realized I could have handled things differently; I could have asked her to stay back after class and discussed many of the same topics we did after my outburst.

Many years later, at Brooklyn College, I lost my temper at a student again. This time, in my office, in the course of a conversation where a grade grubbing conversation had taken a turn into the realm of the absurd–my interlocutor had told me that I had graded his paper too harshly a few seconds after informing me that he had prioritized another class’ exam and therefore had been unable to devote any time or energy to my writing assignment. From this, he concluded that I was being ‘unfair.’ My patience and mental reserves had been worn thin by days of petulant badgering; I jumped out of my chair in indignation as I angrily told him to stop wasting my time. Then, I had felt undignified; my student had been shocked and had taken a step back, appalled by this visible display of frustration and irritation on my part. (It’s a long story, but our relationship did not improve until after he had graduated.)

I dodged a bullet this time. I sent out an email to my classes in which I said a debriefing with me about the grades in the first paper of the semester was a mandatory requirement for all. One of the students to meet with me was the repeat offender; I sat him down, told him he needed to get his act together; he seemed genuinely concerned about the impression he was making, and promised to turn over a new leaf. I breathed a sigh of relief once our meeting was over. That feeling persists; the next few weeks will show whether it was justified or not.